An emotional farewell for the Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo

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Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo passed on on July 22. (Photo from https://www.ucc.org.)

By Lee Egerstrom

Thirty years ago, Mike Goze was leading a search committee to find a new pastor for All Nations Indian Church in Minneapolis. When he and team members went to interview the Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo (Ho-Chunk Nation), he told her they were looking for someone “who wore moccasins and could walk on water.”

“I can do it in wintertime,” was her response. Goze said he and the search committee knew they had found the right person. That was among the humorous, loving and emotional recollections presented July 26 at her funeral held in the large Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

Helgemo, 75, died on July 22. She had been pastor of All Nations Indian Church, 515 E 23rd St, Minneapolis, for the past three decades. But as speaker after speaker proved, she was so much more.

Goze (Ho-Chunk Nation), chief executive officer of the American Indian Community Development Corporation in Minneapolis, can vouch for that. As other speakers pointed out, Goze said Helgemo was a natural leader and got people to do things by simply telling them what she wanted done.

In his case, Goze served All Nations Indian Church on its search committee. At the time of her death, Helgemo was serving as president of the board of directors for American Indian Community Development Corp. a few blocks away at 1508 E Franklin Ave. That meant Goze was, in effect, working for her.

In especially emotional comments at the funeral, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan spoke about how Helgemo had influenced her life. She also read a proclamation in which Gov. Tim Walz and she had declared June 26 to be Marlene Helgemo day in Minnesota.
Much attention was made of Helgemo’s interdenominational ministry although, in remote rural areas, this has been common over the years among mainline, or “in communion,” denominations.

Rev. Helgemo was born Feb. 22, 1947, at Portage, Wis. She grew up in Ashland, Wis., and graduated from what was then Luther Northwestern Seminary in St. Paul in 1987. She became the first ordained Native American woman in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

All Nations Indian Church is a congregation of the United Church of Christ (UCC). She soon became a recognized national leader for Indigenous ministries in both denominations.

She briefly served on the Commission for Church in Society that was formed after three Lutheran bodies merged into the ELCA in 1987. The commission was formed to harmonize social statements from the merging bodies.

More recently, she has served as executive director of the UCC’s Council for American Indian Ministry (CAIM), and is a past president of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.

Denominational leaders were among speakers at her funeral. They included the Rev. Kelley Gallagher, Associate Conference Minister for the Minneapolis Conference of the UCC; Bishop Ann Svennunsen of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA, and the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA. The latter position is akin to being president of a denomination.

What wasn’t stated but was evident at the funeral was how women have moved upward and onward during Helgemo’s life. The presence and comments of the church leaders attested to that, as did the comments from Lieutenant Governor Flanagan.

Her diverse involvement in Native American affairs was also shown by friends that included people from Dakota, Lakota, Ojibwe, Cherokee and Klamath tribal nations as well as her Ho-Chunk friends and relatives from Wisconsin and the Twin Cities.

Her obituaries noted she was engaged in a variety of local, regional, tribal and national organizations. As examples, she was a co-founder of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and had served on the board for the Hennepin County Sexual Violence Center.

She was on the Board of Regents for Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Augsburg commented on her wide ranging involvement by noting she served on the Ho-Chunk Ethics Review Board, on the American Indian Business Development Corporation Review Board, and as vice president of the Native American Community Development Institute.
She is survived by her husband, Harvey Helgemo; daughters Wendy Helgemo and Heidi Tucker, Heidi’s husband Glenn; and two grandchildren, Adalina and Dalia.

The family asks that memorial gifts be made as a donation to All Nations Indian Church, 1515 23rd St. East, Minneapolis, MN 55404.

The funeral service can be viewed at: https://youtu.be/YR2QKqQZlZk